CSUN research aided by use of hundreds of animals

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He died when he was only two months old. He never had a chance.His death was not unexpected; members of his family have been dying young for almost 30 years.

CSUN Rat #KG3L1#5 died 63 days into his young life.

Rat #KG3L1#5 was part of the university’s spastic Han-Wistar rat colony, a small group of rats that live in the biology vivarium, or animal lab, behind electronically locked doors deep within the basement of Eucalyptus Hall, formerly Science Building 2.

“They live to about 60, 65 days at most,” said Biology Professor Randy Cohen. “A normal rat can live up to three years.”

The spastic rats can be easily identified by forelimb tremble and reduced size and weight, according to a research project that utilized the mutant rodents.

The rat’s death was a natural one, triggered by a spontaneous mutation first occurring in an ancestor born in Germany in the late 1960s. The mutation caused neuro-degeneration in parts of the brain of the German rat, bringing the rodent’s life to an early end.

That rat passed down its deadly mutant time bomb down to thousands of its progeny – one of which was CSUN Rat #KG3L1#5, along with many of its brothers and sisters in the colony, Cohen said.

Cohen brought the colony over from UCLA in 1994. He believes the CSUN’s spastic Han-Wistar rat colony is the only one of its kind in the world.

Cohen and his students are trying to figure out exactly how and why the rats are dying. He believes that research into the brains of these rats may lead to a better understanding of human brain disorders.

“What the rat’s brain cells try (to) do to protect themselves might give us a little hint of what human cells might be trying to do to try to prevent their degeneration in human brain disorders,” Cohen said.

Much of Cohen’s research involves giving the rats chemicals and watching to see if it helps to slow down and perhaps stops the breakdown of the rat’s brain cells.

The Han-Wistar spastic rat colony is part of a menagerie of hundreds of other rats, mice, snakes, lizards, turtles and countless insects that live in two animal labs on campus. In addition to the Biology Department’s vivarium, the Psychology Department has its own smaller lab in Sierra Hall.

The animals are an essential and beneficial part of scientific education, and used for classroom exhibition and for research, according to Larry Allen, chair of the Biology department.

Allen said the ways that animals are used by universities have changed drastically in the last few decades.

“There are very few animals being euthanized these days,” Allan said. “The day when instructors constantly sacrificed animals is over.”

Veronica Ulloa, junior biology major, works in the biology vivarium, and said the animals are well taken care of. She said most of the animals die of old age.

“The animals have lots of rooms in their cages,” Ulloa said. “Their cages are changed at least three times a week.”

Any CSUN student or faculty member is eligible to use the animals in the labs for research.

Prospective researchers fill out a seven-page proposal explaining what scientific procedures they wish to perform on the animals. The Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee then examines the proposals. The committee’s existence is required by federal regulations to review all animal research and to ensure that animals are handled in an ethical manner and not exposed to unnecessary risk, according to the IACUC.

“Researchers must follow strict guidelines when working with these animals,” said Scott Perez, director of research for Graduate Studies, Research and International Programs and executive secretary of the IACUC. “The (U.S.) Department of Agriculture and the National Institutes of Health tightly regulate animal research, and we are careful to obey all those rules. All vertebrates are covered.”

The committee has eight members: four from the Biology Department, one from the Kinesiology Department, one from the Psychology Department, a campus veterinarian and a community member. There are between five and 10 animal research applications submitted each year, and most requests are approved, according to Perez.

Several committee members use CSUN animals for research. Members must also submit their research requests to the committee, but they must recuse themselves when their requests are examined.

The committee does not supervise the scientific research or the welfare of the animals after approval. That job is up to the campus veterinarian and the vivarium staff, according to Perez. The campus veterinarian is required to examine the condition of the animals at least once every two weeks, Perez said.

All federally funded research institutions, such as CSUN, must are required to send a report to the Department of Agriculture once a year declaring how many animals it has and if any of these animals are experiencing pain during experiments.

The 2002 CSUN report – the latest available report available on the Department of Agriculture website – states that the university had 15 guinea pigs, 55 hamsters, and three rabbits. The report requires only the declaration of animals covered by the Animal Welfare Act; rats, mice and birds are not required to be reported and therefore are usually not mentioned in reports to the Department of Agriculture.

The report declared that no animals experienced pain or distress during “teaching, research, surgery or tests” at CSUN during that time.

Cohen said he has great hope for the future of his research.

“I’m always excited about things,” Cohen said. “The cool thing about research is you don’t where that experiment is going.”

Cohen admits that he prefers research on cockroaches instead of rats.

“I love to have graduate students work with cockroaches, but most students like to work with cute, cuddly, furry rats,” he said. “I’m not one to twist arms so I let people work with what they are comfortable with.”

Robert McDonald can be reached at robert.mcdonald.690@csun.edu.